As each of us age we interpret the experience differently. Over a lifetime, we create coping mechanisms that work for us. Unfortunately, some of our coping skills lead us into destructive habits such as abuse of drugs or alcohol. Many people don’t think about the elderly and alcohol or drug abuse. Some data suggests that about 1 in 10 older persons living in the community and 1 in 5 living in nursing homes have problems with alcohol abuse. Other studies estimate the range as high as 60 percent for the institutionalized older person have substance abuse issues. Many older persons use alcohol as a way to self-medicate and alleviate stressors such as loss of a spouse (or family members and friends), retirement, loneliness, physical illness and pain.

Some adults hoard medications in an attempt to self-medicate depressions. For many older adults there is a negative stigma associated with admitting the need for help of any kind, but especially psychological help. We all want to believe we can handle our own business. However, we all need help at some point in our lives and there is no shame in that. Alcohol may yield a quick response to the physical or emotional pain, but at a very high cost.

As we age, our bodies metabolize alcohol more slowly. Therefore, older adults have an increased sensitivity and decreased tolerance for alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol can have serious consequences, such as memory loss, broken bones from falls, visual problems, cirrhosis of the liver, heart attack, stroke; even HIV and AIDS can be serious side effects of mixing alcohol with not only prescribed medications but over the counter medicines. Most adults are unaware that over the counter medications like Tylenol, cold medications and laxatives can be turned highly toxic when mixed with alcohol. And most of the time alcohol consumption is not thought of as a cause of falls or illness, not by the patient or the doctor.

All too often, substance abuse and depression among the older population is not an issue taken seriously. Many doctors admit to feeling awkward discussing mental health issues such as substance abuse or depression with older adults. Many older adults go without proper assistance because their symptoms are being associated with getting old, and this can lead to misdiagnosis and unnecessary medical treatments.

Let’s bust some myths about getting older:

MYTH: Declining health and/or disability is normal.
FACT: Getting older does not automatically mean poor health. Healthy eating, exercising, and managing stress greatly help reduce the risk of chronic disease or injuries later in life.

MYTH: Memory loss is inevitable.
FACT: Although you may notice it takes longer to retrieve information (you have more to sift through), memory loss is not inevitable. Memory loss may be a side effect of medication or physical illness, such as bladder infection. Talk to your doctor about any changes you notice.

MYTH: Depression is a normal part of aging.
FACT: Medications, grief and illness can cause many side effects, one is depression; age itself is not a reason for depression. Talk to your doctor about feelings of depression or long periods of sadness.

MYTH: Substance abuse or misuse doesn’t make a difference when you’re old, and there is no point in seeking treatment.
FACT: Older adults can re-claim their lives and find meaning in their later years. If you think you or someone you know may have problem with substance abuse or depression, seek professional help immediately.

Here are some positive coping strategies to use when working through life changes:

  • Focus on the things you’re grateful for. The longer you live, the more you lose. But as you lose people and things, life becomes even more precious. When you stop taking things for granted, you appreciate and enjoy what you have even more.
  • Acknowledge and express your feelings. You may have a hard time showing emotions, perhaps feeling that such a display is inappropriate and weak, but burying your feelings can lead to anger, resentment and depression. Don’t deny what you’re going through. Find healthy ways to process your feelings, perhaps by talking with a close friend or writing in a journal.
  • Accept the things you can’t change. Many things in life are beyond our control. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems. Face your limitations with dignity and a healthy dose of humor.
  • Look for the silver lining. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
  • Take daily action to deal with life’s challenges. When a challenge seems too big to handle, sweeping it under the carpet often appears the easiest option. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away; it allows both the problem and your anxiety to build. Instead, take things one small step at a time. Even a small step can go a long way to boosting your confidence and reminding you that you are not powerless.

Each of us has different ways of experiencing meaning and joy, and over time the activities you enjoy may change. But it is as important as ever to take time to nourish your spirit, if you’re not sure where to start, try some of the following suggestions:

  • Rekindle an old hobby or start a new one
  • Play with your grandkids, nieces, nephews or a favorite pet
  • Learn something new (an instrument, a foreign language or a new game)
  • Get involved in your community (volunteer or attend a local event)
  • Take a class or join a club
  • Travel somewhere new or go on a weekend trip to a place you’ve never visited
  • Spend time in nature (take a scenic hike, go fishing or camping or enjoy a ski trip)
  • Enjoy the arts (visit a museum or go to a concert or a play)
  • Write your memoirs or a play about your life experiences

The possibilities are endless. The important thing is to find activities that are both meaningful and enjoyable for you.  Being proactive with your own mental and physical health is empowering. How will you exert your power today?

For more information about how Navamaze can help you or a loved one cope with life changes, contact us.